In my last post I made the argument that in order to build a legacy, LeBron James needed to root himself deeply in community, to become as closely associated with Cleveland as Michael Jordan was with Chicago. Cleveland is LeBron’s home, and I think most of us were thrilled to hear that he will be returning this coming year. He explained his decision by reflecting on his deep ties to Northeast Ohio – ties so strong that four successful years with the Miami Heat weren’t enough to make him forget. LeBron is coming home.
LeBron’s story is a great example of the kind of migration that hometowns across the nation are experiencing. As a people no longer tied to the land, we often find families scattered across the country instead of growing together in close community. Children in smaller places grow up and move to bigger places with more economic opportunities and, unlike James, they often don’t return. As a result we are seeing these smaller places struggle to survive, much less thrive and grow. What can these places do?
I like to think of places as solar systems. Each one has its own gravitational force, an inner community which pulls its people to it within a certain distance. From a practical standpoint, the further away we are from our community the costlier and less frequent the visits. Some places have a greater gravitational pull, or appeal, than others and hold on to their populations more successfully. That pull, however, isn’t fixed, it’s variable. What these smaller places need to do then is enhance their own gravitational pulls to retain their top talent. Here are five ways to do it:
- Distinctness – Places do themselves no favors by looking and acting like every other place. Distinct architecture, one-of-a-kind shops, and local cuisines provide a better sense of place than cookie-cutter subdivisions and strip malls of the same old chains.
- Sense of History – The fact that each place has its own cast of characters and its own stories adds to its distinctness. That history should be proudly displayed. Having a powerful narrative enables us to write ourselves into it, strengthening our ties to that place.
- Places to Gather – A sense of community is built when people gather and interact often, and people gather and interact often when they have a place for it. Spacious public parks, funky music venues, and hometown sports arenas provide ample opportunity for people to mingle and build that sense of belonging.
- Local Arts and Culture – We each have a creative side and, given the chance to share it, people can really surprise us. Craft fairs, farmers markets and stages for local bands provide the opportunities to showcase homegrown talent.
- Economic Opportunity – In the end, we can only stay where we have the means to support ourselves and our families. This is why it is essential for places to cultivate a thriving local economy. This of course is one of the things I am particularly passionate about and look forward to exploring further in future posts!
With these five elements, I think every small place has the potential to increase its gravity and hold onto its community. Maybe the kids will always leave the nest, maybe big city lights and exotic locales will never lose their appeal. But maybe like LeBron they will also never be able to ignore completely the gentle pull to come back. With a powerful enough pull, even Cleveland was able to bring home a King.